When most people hear the term “food waste,” their mind goes straight to the kitchen — uneaten leftovers, spoiled groceries, plates scraped into the garbage.
But many would be surprised to learn that food waste actually occurs at every point of a food’s life cycle. Food isn’t just wasted in the kitchen, but also at the grocery store, in storage, in transit — even on the field where it grew. In fact, a great deal of food never even makes its way off the farm. And in a country where one in eight people don’t always know where their next meal is coming from, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, this widespread waste isn’t just an environmental crisis, it’s a moral quandary.
At Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA, a group of students are doing their part to get uneaten food out of the field and into the hands of people who need it. Every weekend from spring to early November, the Whitman Glean Team dispatches groups of students to local farms to pick excess produce to donate to the Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank. They can also be found gathering leftovers every week at the Walla Walla Farmers Market.
Since their formation six years ago, the Glean Team has built strong connections with local farms, other local gleaning groups, and the food bank. Walla Walla farmers email the Glean Team when they have more food on their fields than they can pick, and by the end of the week, the Glean Team often has a long list of farms to glean from, which they sort in order of priority before sending out a group of gleaners — typically five to 15 volunteers from the campus’s reliably outdoorsy student body. One top-priority glean this fall? Eight hundred pounds of perfect tomatoes, too red and ripe to be shipped to Seattle.
Of course, though the Glean Team would love to work all year long, Eastern Washington’s snowy winters bring an end to the growing season before the fall semester is even over. But this doesn’t mean the team’s work is done: Every year they throw a thank-you gathering for their farmers. The party is catered by the Bon Appétit team, who source from some of the very same farms the Glean Team visits. They also partner with the sustainability club on events like the school’s springtime Green Gala.
All in all, over the course of the 2016 growing season, the Glean Team was able to recover and donate more than 36,000 pounds of local produce! Thanks in part to their efforts, Walla Walla has become a notable success story amid statewide efforts to increase access to whole foods and produce at food banks.
Food waste on farms is a problem, no doubt about it. But in one small city in a rural corner of Washington State, that problem gets a little smaller with every glean.